In 1982, the Nike Air Force 1 was released to widespread acclaim. At the time, Nike Basketball operated on a one-year model cycle: by 1983, the beloved AF1 would be usurped (never replaced) by a new shoe, no matter how loudly sneaker fans protested. It was an open-and-shut case – simply business. Until the communities got involved.
Before the end of the year, three Baltimore shoe retailers – each locally-owned, embedded in the neighborhoods they served – would convince Nike to keep the AF1 based on nothing more than their gut instinct that the shoe was an icon in waiting. The retailers were right: as supply dried up all over the East Coast, word spread that the AF1 was still available in Baltimore. By word of mouth alone, sneakerheads traveled from as far as New York City just to buy a pair.
In an unprecedented move, Nike kept producing the shoe, but it wasn’t businessmen asking nicely that saved the Air Force 1. What really changed Oregon’s mind? With the help of the entire Northeast region, the three Baltimore retailers had amazingly sold out of their Forces… by the end of 1984. How times have changed.
Sneaker culture may have existed for decades, but until the introduction of social media a mere decade ago, the story of sneaker communities remains dangerously incomplete. Since news coverage of the 2005 Pigeon Dunk riot first thrust the word “sneakerhead” into popular conscience, what was once a hobbyist’s curiosity became a worldwide phenomenon. While many of the core tenets that bonded those original offline sneaker communities are still present, the sheer influx of new members has caused a raft of growing pains that now stretch those bonds thin.
After all, what took half a year in 1984 now takes milliseconds online. Whether it’s selling out a run of hyped sneakers or clicking “Join Group,” social media has changed the very core of the shoe game. To understand how exactly, we need to rewind.
Social media as we know it launched in the mid-2000s as sneakers were already on the upswing. This was a veritable “Golden Age” of sneakers: communities thrived, collaborations were collaborative (it wasn’t just two sneaker stores slapping their brand on a monochrome colorway – anyone remember Reebok x Chanel?), and sneaker culture in and around major regional stores had already developed. Sure, there were Internet sneaker communities before then (NikeTalk, for example, launched in 1999), but these hobbyist forums lacked both the ease of discovery and gargantuan reach of platforms like Facebook (launched 2004), Twitter (2006), reddit’s /r/sneakers (2009), and most notably, Instagram (2010).
That’s not to suggest every platform was the millions-strong juggernaut we know it as today right at launch – believe me, we’ll get there. However, by the time the first Nike Air Yeezy released in April 2009, Facebook was rife with sneaker groups and the Twittersphere could react in due course to any and all major releases. For a fun time capsule, go to Twitter’s advanced search, select April 2009, and enter the terms “Air Yeezy.” There was salt; there were Ls; and they came from everywhere all at once.
Suddenly, it did matter if Nike sold half a million “Legend Blue” 11s – if your network now includes the world at large, it’s you vs. seven billion for the title of “dopest pickup.” In a rapidly-expanded community no longer defined by the nuances of face-to-face interaction, those three divisive traits that paradoxically bonded sneakerheads (exclusivity; oneupsmanship; brand loyalty) were in flux. The root of this flux was a single change that struck at the very core of the original offline sneaker communities: social media made other sneakerheads easy to find.
Just like that, the rules of the game changed forever: with one quick search on your social media of choice, you went from “only sneakerhead in school” to a bonafide part of something more – no sneaker store pilgrimage required. In essence, the introduction of easily-searched social media tore down the barriers to entry that made offline communities both inaccessible to most (whack) yet tightly-knit as a result of the shared experience of overcoming those barriers (certified fresh). Now, millions all over the world could hit search and enter a sneaker community with no more than a few keystrokes from the comfort of home.
The results? Predictable, exponential, and omnipresent.
In the decade or so that these major social media platforms have coexisted, the global sneaker community has transformed from small networks of uber-passionate devotees into a millions-strong mass culture, equal parts obsession and fascination. In my mind, three differences forever separate post-social media communities from the tight-knit groups of old: First, there’s the sheer size, scale, and international reach of today’s sneaker culture. What started as isolated, borderline countercultural groups in coastal American cities is now worldwide mass culture – like it or not, the word “sneaker” has become a sanitized code-phrase for “cool.” Plus, thanks to the network effects of social media communities, this culture can only continue to grow as even the most casual browser gets exposed. That’s not necessarily bad: “I got into the shoe game through social media,” Vivian Frank (founder of Yeezy Talk Worldwide) told me last month, “mainly from American sneaker blogs and American sneaker collectors showing off… on Instagram and YouTube.” However, it is a fundamental shift that has far-reaching implications for sneaker culture. “Instagram has allowed me to [instantly] connect with people who are into what I’m doing,” said Jeff Staple, streetwear legend and the designer of the coveted Nike “Pigeon” SB Dunk. “That is awesome… and technologically not possible in the past unless someone mailed me a letter in the post and waited for a reply.”
Second, there’s the internet-aided ease of reselling. “While I appreciate the hustle of resellers and understand the complicated politics of that whole game, I understand the OGs when they piss and moan about how [it] changed for the worst,” said Lawrence Schlossman, brand director at Grailed, speaking to me last month. Reselling has always existed, but the permanence and searchability of social media posts has both made reselling easier and much more visible, only drawing more resellers into the mix.
Finally, there’s the rampant homogeneity caused by the easily-quantified feedback systems built into every social media platform. The reason you only see the same 10 or 20 highly-desirable limited models? “Content is optimized or created for virality, and the inherent [format] of Instagram means you’re really just sharing eye-candy,” said Eugene Kan of MAEKAN. “While the distribution of content has improved, the result is not necessarily a quest for knowledge or understanding of culture, but simply what creates the most validation in the eyes of strangers and peers.” What maximizes that validation is, in short, pandering to whatever subset of the community you want to target. To quote Lawrence again: “Every genre has its own footwear grail. If you’re a hypebeast who is just getting into Fear of God jeans, you now need bred Saint Laurents to complete that look. That is now engraved in the system.”
The upshot? Communities post-social media have some serious and systemic conflicts to resolve. A community that discourages thought diversity, encourages opportunistic behavior, and is growing uncontrollably as that happens is unlikely to stay a true community for long. Once those pains are cured, the bigger, more-accessible worldwide sneaker culture will probably come out stronger. “When I started [Staple], I didn’t think about the community,” Jeff concluded. “In 1997, there wasn’t really a community to speak of. Maybe it was 500 people in the entire world into this shit. Now? There [are] 5,000 kids lining up for 1 sneaker drop.”
“There’s always gonna be that kind of person that wishes that community stayed small… and was exclusive,” said Lawrence. “Now, it’s only getting more inclusive by the day, and to me, there’s no real downside to that. Is housing a bigger, more passionate community really a problem?”
The introduction of social media turned a niche hobby with significant effort-related barriers to entry into a global phenomenon by removing those barriers – or, at the very least, demystifying what was behind them. While formerly-small communities might experience an uncomfortable and prolonged identity crisis until they adapt to this influx of new members, in my opinion, the future is bright. Aristotle didn’t know anything about NikeTalk, or Yeezy Talk, or Versace’s Greek Key high-tops, but he sure called his shot: man is, by nature, a social animal. Seeing as we’re programmed to seek others, why limit ourselves to an arbitrarily-small group of others?
According to scholars like Michigan professor Marcus Collins, you seeking out those like-minded others – people who share your interests and values, who tag you in posts about fresh pairs they know you like, and won’t blink at using “fire” as an adjective – is one of the most rewarding parts of the human experience. Our brains literally reward us with a mental high for doing it!
So if it is sneakers that bring you and all of those others together, then you know what? That’s pretty dope, too.
In part I of this series, we look back at how early sneaker communities paved the way for today’s global sneaker culture.
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- Illustrations: Kim Jung Youn